EDH Deckbuilding Fundamentals: Too Much Good Stuff

One of the few cards that genuinely should go in every deck.

Most seasoned EDH deckbuilders know the feeling. You’ve got this great idea for a deck, say for instance a crazy BUG spirit tribal deck. Your mind whirls with the possibilities as you feverishly pick out all the cards that would go in the deck. Mirror-Mad Phantasm! Conspiracy! Promised Kannushi! Then, of course, you need to add all of your favorite staples in those colors. Phyrexian Arena! Fact or Fiction! Primeval Titan! Finally, you take a step back, count up the cards in the pile in front of you, and realize that you’re going to have to cut half the cards you’ve picked out to even get out of the triple digits, much less leave any room for land. It’s…a conundrum.  There are just too many spectacularly awesome cards out there to fit into a single deck. It sounds strange at first, but EDH deckbuilding is every bit as much about what cards you don’t put in as it is about the ones you do.

Now, if you’ve spent any time around competitive Magic players, especially Limited players, you’ve probably heard them talk about whether an effect is “worth a card.” When they’re doing so, they are talking about whether or not a card will pull its weight in their deck. While EDH  players don’t have to struggle with that particular question (almost everything in the average EDH deck is “worth a card” in the traditional Limited sense), they have a similar, slightly more stringent question: “Is it worth a slot?” It’s kind of odd to be talking about limitations in a format where you’re going to be playing upwards of sixty unique spells in your deck while many constructed decks have fewer than ten, but you really want to be asking yourself the same questions.

First off, “What does my deck do?” This question is by far the most important one you can ask yourself as you’re building a deck, since it informs the answers to the rest of the questions that you’ll need to ask yourself.  As you build your deck, you need to consider exactly what your endgame is, and how it works toward that goal.  For example, while they may have the same general, a Mimeoplasm deck that looks to win by grinding out its opponents and using the ‘plasm for late-game recursion is going to look very different than one that is looking to make a lethal, unblockable ‘plasm and swing for the win.

Now, once you’ve got your gameplan figured out, you need to start paring down that pile of cards you threw together early on.  As you consider each card, the question you want to be asking yourself isn’t “Is this a good card?” Of course it’s a good card – it wouldn’t be under consideration in the first place if it wasn’t. What you really should be asking is, “Is this card right for my deck?”  Does it support your gameplan?  Does it synergize with the other cards that support your gameplan?  The answer isn’t always obvious.

To illustrate my point, let’s take an example from today’s Standard.  Let’s say you’re building a Red Deck Wins list, and you have the choice between two 3-mana instants to top out your burn – Volt Charge and Brimstone Volley.  Brimstone Volley is, on the face of it, a more powerful spell – 5 damage versus 3.  But when you start looking at the two cards in the context of the rest of your deck, the situation becomes much less clear-cut.  RDW lists these days are running quite a few creatures that accumulate +1/+1 counters that can benefit from proliferate, and proliferating a Shrine of Burning Rage or Koth of the Hammer is a non-insignificant boost.  When taken together, it becomes clear that Volt Charge is actually the better card for the deck, despite it doing less damage.

The lesson here is that the more powerful card – the staple, as EDHers put it – is not always the card you should be playing. For instance, Terastodon is the premier noncreature permanent removal card in green, but Woodfall Primus is easily the better card in a sacrifice deck and Brutalizer Exarch wins out in a Maelstrom Wanderer cascade deck. Consecrated Sphinx can draw you a huge amount of cards, but if an opponent plays their own sphinx then they’re going to be able to draw their deck.  If your deck isn’t prepared to handle such a situation, then Consecrated Sphinx may not be the right card for your deck.  All this is not to say that you shouldn’t play staples, but they shouldn’t be exempt from the scrutiny that you subject the rest of your deck to.

4 comments to EDH Deckbuilding Fundamentals: Too Much Good Stuff

  • Good advice, especially the point about the simple statement: “What does my deck do?” Asking this makes the painful process of cutting cards a lot faster, since it is actually a pretty easy question to answer most of the time unless you’re building an unfocused mess of a deck (which is ok too). If a card isn’t propelling your deck directly towards it’s focused gameplan, then you can likely cut it. There’s always slots for generically good utiity and removal, but those should never compose enough of your deck to muscle out the cards that define your deck’s objective.

    If you find “What does my deck do?” isn’t narrowing your choices, then your definition of your deck’s objective is probably too broad, so just add some qualifiers. For example, my “beatdown” deck could include all kinds of stuff. When I narrow that to “beatdown deck centred around multiple attack phases”, then it becomes significantly easier to chop cards. Combined with the limitations of colour identity, every small qualifier ends up cutting huge swaths of cards if you’re being honest with yourself.

    And of course, even if it doesn’t REALLY look like it’s part of your decks gameplan, you should probably be open to keeping slots for pet cards (Bullwhip!).

  • Great points all around. I definitely think it is worth taking time to justify ALL of your card choices in each deck, even ubiquitous staples like Sol Ring.

    One that always gets me riled up is Solemn Simulacrum. I can never understand why this guy gets sloted into so many Green decks! I understand that he’s pretty much the best thing to ever happen to non-Green ramp/fixer spells, and I definitely think he is pretty much justifiable in 100% of EDH decks that DON’T have access to Green. But in a Green deck, by the time I’ve got Sakura Tribe Elder, Wood Elves, Cultivate, Kodama’s Reach, Prime Time, and Skyshrod Claim… well, against that class of card, Sad Robot looks downright mediocre.

    Obviously there are going to be exceptions to this rule, but for the vast majority of Green-containing decks, Sad Robot is a sub-par choice versus the wide array of cheaper, faster Green ramp spells, and this fact makes me really wish people would take a moment to consider whether his ubiquity really justifies his inclusion in every damned deck, or just the ones where he fits some larger theme or purpose.

    On the flip side of this, some cards are so generically or widely “good” that asking what the card does for your deck’s theme is practically moot. The best example I can think of is Mimic Vat. That card seems, at first glance, to be best utilized in a creature-heavy deck, as it’s primary and only interaction deals with creatures. But, if you really think about it, it doesn’t matter if YOUR deck has creatures or not. In fact, Mimic Vat is good in decks that play ZERO creatures, save their general. Why? Because it fills a hole. It’s a non-Creature spell that can produce creatures, thus enabling a deck to do something it couldn’t otherwise do.
    Cards like Mimic Vat are so good because they are good at either accentuating what your deck already does, or by doing something your deck doesn’t do very well at all!

    With Mimic Vat, you can’t really just look at your own deck to evaluate it – you have to ask the question of your larger metagame. To justify Mimic Vat’s inclusion into virtually any deck, you only need ask yourself “Do some of the decks in my playgroup run good creatures that might be worth copying, and do those creatures die fairly often?” I’d say 99% of the EDH groups out there would answer with a resounding “YES!” and that is all the justification you need to make Mimic Vat an every-deck-ever inclusion.

    Howver, this discounts some mitigating factors such as boredom and hate. If creatures are a big part of your metagame, then clearly Mimic Vat is going to be very strong in virtually every deck you throw it into, but there’s equally valid reasons not to run the card too. Does the card bore you? Does every player in your group run it in every deck the build? Does it play a major role in deciding the outcome of the vast majority of games? Do people groan anytime it gets cast, regardles of who’s casting it? If so, then you can easily say “screw the strategic value, I just HATE this card!” and that’s perfectly valid in the land of EDH! Or, maybe the card is just such a notorious win-machine in your group that everyone else just packs too much hate against the card for it to be reliable anymore. That, too, is a strategically sound reason to stop running a card.

    I guess my point is that there are a lot of other factors besides your own deck’s theme or game plan that should go into the decision-making process, but I do think “Theme” is usually the best place to start.

    For me, personally, the best decks are a good blend of Thematic cards, Good stuff, and a couple of pet cards that probably don’t belong… just for flavor, you know!

    Anyway, it was a great post, and one I hope people read and take to heart. I’m a pretty dedicated good-stuff player, but I strongly feel that taking it too far will cause the format to suffer from repetativeness and boringness, though I think we’re still a ways off from that doomsday scenario. As more people join the format and take to the internet for deckbuilding tech and advise, this can lead to an increase in net-decking and a stifling of creativity or individuality, so I think this is a time when we need articles like this more than ever, to promote the diversity that makes the format so fun in the first place.

  • Coda

    Solemn is a good case study in a staple card that sees far more play than it should. I mean, when you break it down, what does it do? For four mana it ramps you by one and gives you a 2/2 body. The ramp is nice but overcosted, and the body is insignificant in EDH. When it dies you get a card, but unless your deck is designed to give you control over when it dies, that’s really more of a perk than a feature. Unless a deck can sacrifice it and recur it repeatedly or otherwise make use of its undersized body, it really should be playing more efficient ramp spells. Without any synergy, it’s only ever going to be average, even in a non-green deck.

    While you bring up a good point in synergizing your deck with your meta in your discussion of Mimic Vat, I’m not particularly a fan of that approach. To me, an EDH deck is not just a stack of cards, it’s a statement, a reflection of my own playstyle and philosophy. In that vein, I like my decks to be self-contained. Sure, I may run things that key off of my opponents’ cards, but I make sure they synergize with my own cards, first.

  • CrazyPierre

    Mike Flores (I think) warned against “pet cards” or “pet decks”, those items that seem to work so well in theory and limited testing but once under fire collapse or underwhelm.

    I’ve started to feel this way about my current favourite Edric (near creatureless) deck. Since I’m taking it to a tournament in a few weeks, I had to cut a TON of stuff. Is Nevy’s Disk too slow? I thought so, especially with all the Quasali Pridemages in my meta. What about card X that’s great in multi (Rites of Flourishing)? Well, don’t really want to give my opponent a Howling Mine AND an extra land drop…and so on. Eventually got it pared down, but some “un-fun” cards surfaced for tournament play. Should be interesting to see how it does.

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